Report: UW–Madison should expand computing efforts

October 2, 2018 By John Lucas

The University of Wisconsin–Madison should create a new school to house expanded efforts in computing and data analysis to help students and Wisconsin workers take advantage of a field that is transforming the way people live and do business.

This finding and others come from a computer science working group that was charged with advising the university on the opportunities available to advance a computing agenda at UW–Madison. The group has been meeting since early 2018 and recently released a final report (PDF).

The major recommendation of the working group is to create a new academic structure that would bring computing and key related disciplines closer together to encourage collaboration and expand teaching and research activities.

In response, the College of Letters & Science will begin immediately the process of consultation and planning through shared governance with faculty, staff, alumni, and students of Computer Sciences, the iSchool, and other departments and units, to restructure into a new and expanded school or some other arrangement that meets the goals of this vision.

The process would allow each unit to retain its individual programs and brands, but also collaborate in new ways that provide enhanced instructional and research resources.

“Our technology-driven society is more and more reliant on the use of large data and on ‘smart’ devices that enhance our ability to access and utilize information. It is critical that UW stay at the forefront of research and education in computing, information and data science,” says UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who commissioned the report.

“A new structure will help maintain our commitment to addressing the needs of our students and society, and advance UW–Madison’s status as leader and innovator for decades to come,” she says, praising the working group effort.

The working group members were drawn from alumni, campus and industry and led by technology entrepreneur Tom Erickson and Michael Lehman, a Silicon Valley veteran who recently served as UW–Madison’s interim chief information officer.

“In recent years, computer science has become the most popular major on campus, and computing skills have risen to the top of Wisconsin employers’ needs,” says Erickson, a graduate of UW–Madison’s electrical and computer engineering program. “Our recommendations are aimed at attracting and retaining computing talent, strengthening connections with industry, and providing more students with an opportunity to learn those in-demand skills.”

As part of its research, the working group analyzed the country’s top university programs in computer science, library and information studies, statistics and computer engineering.

Although UW is highly regarded in the field, the group recommended several steps to help keep the university competitive with its peers, starting with a new organization of UW–Madison’s extensive resources to meet the economic needs of Wisconsin and the academic needs of students and create opportunities for the university to build an even stronger research reputation in these areas.

UW–Madison will begin a national search for a new leader who would be tasked with improving the accessibility and variety of computing-related education, increasing student enrollments at both the undergraduate and professional school level, and creating connections with industry that deepen the educational experience.

The new leader would also be charged with leading the conversation to generate new resources — from private, state and business partners — to help implement the vision outlined in the report. Creating such a position would also bring a new senior level of leadership to facilitate cross-campus collaboration as computing and data science become increasingly embedded in society.

“The vision described in the report will strengthen academic connections between departments across campus, expanding the computing education and resources available to students and researchers in a wide range of academic disciplines,” says Karl Scholz, dean of the College of Letters & Science.

In addition to the creation of the school or similar structure, campus is taking several actions aimed at building the university’s strength in this area immediately.
UW is seeking to aggressively hire in Computer Sciences and related fields, and is planning to offer an undergraduate degree in data science.

To spearhead the growth of UW–Madison’s research enterprise in computing and data science across campus, the university will create a research-focused Data Science Institute. As the report points out, data science is a key part of an increasing number of disciplines, and UW has faculty who work in data science in almost all schools and colleges. The Data Science Institute will give these faculty a place to come together, to exchange information and to work on exciting new interdisciplinary research projects that utilize data science techniques and the analysis of large data sets.

The Data Science Institute will be structured similarly to some of the campus’s most successful research centers, reporting to the vice chancellor for research and graduate education. A key contributor to this institute will be the Data Science Hub, part of the Wisconsin institute for Discovery. A group of faculty will develop detailed plans for the creation and operations of this institute over the next several months.

For more information on the working group, view the full report (PDF) or see additional details.